I’ve been a fan of the Gears of War franchise since the very beginning, playing through each game at least once with my friend Mike. The remastered original came bundled with my Xbox One and while it was fun to play through, it really just got me excited for the next entry in the series. October saw the release of Gears of War 4, the first new game in the series in three and a half years and the first one developed by The Coalition. I’m not ready to put Gears of War 4 at the top of the franchise, but it’s a good game that shows that the series is clearly in good hands.
- TL;DR: The cover-based shooting and gore you’ve come to expect with better writing in the campaign and a smarter, updated horde mode.
- Platforms: PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
- Time Played: 15:30
- What I Played: Finished the campaign co-op on hardcore in 12:30, two Horde matches
If you’re playing or thinking about playing Gears of War 4, chances are you already know the story up to this point. Marcus Fenix and the COG put an end to the Locust War 25 years ago. The COG’s militaristic rule hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns though, as we learn that JD, Marcus’s son, and his friend Del left their posts as COG soldiers to team up with a group of Outsiders. Those Outsiders are attacked by both the COG’s robotic DeeBees and a strange, new threat called the Swarm. As expected, it’s up to JD and company to save the day.
Big, powerful, and marginally insane guns are staples of the Gears franchise and Gears of War 4 doesn’t disappoint in that department. The standard issue Gnasher shotgun is fine and all, but the new quadruple-barreled Overkill is, well, aptly named. If sniping is more your style, the electrically charged Embar may be for you. As for power weapons, my new favorite is the Tri-shot. Think of the giant Mulcher, except add two more barrels to it. That’s what I’m talking about.
Those guns and their immense power are important when fighting the DeeBees and the Swarm. DeeBees come in a few flavors, the most common being light and heavy human-shaped soldiers. The bigger ones tend to carry Overkills, so don’t try and be a hero. The most annoying DeeBee is easily the Guardian, a small flying robot with a minigun on its underside and a forward facing shield. In a cover based game, something that can get over the top of your position is a serious threat.
The Swarm are the newest alien threat to the planet of Sera. While the small and quick Juveniles are pretty similar to Wretches minus the wailing scream and the standard drones look, sound, and die just like the Locust drones do, the Swarm isn’t entirely a rehash of the Locust. Pouncers, for example, are lizards that jump around and shoot quills out of their tails. Carriers are large ape-like enemies that shoot explosive rounds from their chest while slowly lumbering towards you. It may seem lazy on paper, but the Swarm/Locust similarities are explained as you play through the campaign.
Set pieces take up a large portion of that campaign, as usual. The tried-and-true system of some dialogue while walking through a tight corridor that opens up on a cover-laden arena is prevalent throughout the dozen or so hours of the campaign. There are a handful of small horde-type defenses as well as your typical big, ridiculous sequences like trying to take down a huge airplane while riding a motorcycle or flying up a crumbling mineshaft on steel cables. There’s also a heavier lean on weather effects like wind flares and lightning storms along with destructible environment pieces that crush your enemies under stone and iron. At one point, Del says that he thinks even the planet is trying to kill them. I don’t think he’s wrong.
Compared to other Gears games, Gears of War 4 is a step forward in most respects. AI partners will drop everything to help you when you are downed, which not only makes solo play more viable but also lets your co-op partner more or less keep doing their own thing when you go down. The AI is also better at shooting in general with a glaring exception of the very first “you go left, I’ll go right” section that intentionally splits up the team. I was with Kait and she decided to take cover as far back as possible and not shoot a single bullet, leaving me to fend for myself. Active reloading and roadie running feel as good as ever and a new mechanic to yank an enemy over cover towards you feels great when you can pull it off.
Ammo is a real concern, too. I played through on hardcore, the “hard” difficulty on the “easy/normal/hard/very hard” scale, and enemies are absolute sponges. Both me and my co-op partner were constantly running out of bullets and picking up enemy guns even with high rates of active reloads. It’s a change to the typical shoot/duck/shoot formula and forces you to be more aggressive and resourceful that I like more in theory than in practice. Most of the time I ended up feeling that enemies were just taking an obscene amount of time to go down.
Thankfully, the scenery is beautiful while all that shooting is going down. The typical boring and drab browns of past Gears games have been replaced with a bright color palette. Cover will be chipped away and sometimes destroyed completely while you are hiding behind it. One of the more engaging effects is when someone, friend or foe, dies close to you and blood covers part of your screen. The Gears franchise has never been short on gore and Gears of War 4 holds that torch up high and proud. I couldn’t tell you how many times me and my co-op partner remarked after the satisfying crunch of a headshot or laughed after being blown to bits.
Many reviews are praising the strength of the writing in Gears of War 4. I, on the other hand, thought it was pretty forced and, at times, annoying. JD, Del, and Kait spit out one liners in an attempt to be funny every five minutes. I understand that The Coalition is trying to rekindle the flame of Marcus and Dom’s bro-tastic relationship, but I think they tried too hard. I want to care about these new characters as much as I do the old ones and maybe I will with time, but for right now I just don’t have that bond. In addition, the pacing was a bit slow until the final act and a half. This may be partially due to the bullet sponge issue I mentioned earlier. The last two or so hours of the game really pick up nicely, though.
After trying and failing to enjoy the competitive side of Gears multiplayer many times in the past, I haven’t bothered to try this time. I know the shotgun evasion duels just aren’t for me, which is fine. Horde, on the other hand, is my jam. Horde mode in Gears of War 4 has some pretty big changes, starting off with the class system first introduced in Gears of War: Judgment. Each of the five classes has a handful of skills to equip: the sniper gets a boost to headshot damage, the heavy has increased boomshot capacity, etc. Skills are unlocked as you play and level up. There are also a plethora of player models and gun skins to unlock. On top of that, there is a bounty system that lets you gamble on your next match, rewarding you with bonus XP for headshots, executions, and more. The bounties add a new wrinkle to horde mode on top of the typical goal of simply clearing each wave.
The biggest change to horde mode is easily the Fabricator, a giant 3D printer that can be placed anywhere on the map. It acts as your central hub where you can buy guns, spike stripes, turrets, and more to be placed wherever you see fit. The same map will play out differently depending on the location of your Fabricator. In order to fortify your position as the game goes on, you’ll need to collect power points from fallen enemies and deposit them into the Fabricator. You can maximize this by letting someone running the scout class with a power deposit bonus do the running. Challenge rounds mix the game up as well, tasking the team with special goals like getting a certain number of headshots in a round or to kill 10 enemies in 10 seconds. All of these changes help make the newest iteration of horde mode the best yet by a mile.
Gears of War 4 is both new and old. It’s the start of a new chapter after the Locust War and stars a new group of young soldiers. It also has that traditional Gears feel with copious amounts of explosions, set pieces, and brutality. The story is interesting and moves everything forward with a fantastic final section but suffers from some pacing issues in the middle. At the end of the day, Gears of War 4 is an above average entry in one of my favorite franchises.